Reflecting on 2021

As I enjoyed writing up my reflections on 2020 and recently reading back over them, I’ve decided to do it again this year.

A long time ago, I used to do these around my birthday, but the end of the year is as good a time as any to do them. I don’t keep a diary so these are the closest thing.

What follows is a fairly random mix of reflections, reckons and recommendations. If you’re interested then read on.

Working

I spent the first half of this year doing some freelance work whilst applying for jobs. Having left the ODI at the end of 2020 I was ready to find something new.

Freelancing

In my freelance work this year I’ve:

  1. worked with the Risk Data Library team at the World Bank to help them think through their approach to standardising the publication and exchange of risk data, giving advice and support on process, documentation, and how to build on existing standards
  2. completed a short project with a team at Foundry4 and FutureGov, to review how one of their public sector clients was approaching its product development
  3. supported a couple of small research teams, providing some expert advice on standards and data sharing
  4. joined an evaluation team that is carrying out a long term review of a data institution, on behalf of their funder. I’ve been looking at the aspects that relate to collecting, managing and publishing open data, their data infrastructure, as well as their role as a data institution
  5. worked with the Full Fact team to explore how they can best use and build on Schema.org in order to enrich their fact checking data

I really enjoyed the projects with both Full Fact and the World Bank. And I’d like to do more evaluation work in the future.

Job Hunting

I enjoy freelancing so was happy to slip back into that for a while. But I was keen to find a more long term role, ideally in the health or energy sectors working on an application or piece of data infrastructure.

I spent a few months applying for a variety of jobs. This was an eye-opening experience. It’s been a long time since I went through a recruitment process and I was surprised at how things have changed.

Many organisations seem to run rolling recruitment processes these days. Which means there’s no end date for roles. And, in my experience at least, no feedback to applicants. You just submit your CV into a vacuum and they will get back to you if they’re interested.

Other places were extremely slow in making decisions, or missed their own deadlines for giving feedback to applicants.

Don’t do this. Its insulting.

I don’t write that out of a sense of arrogance that I was right for all these roles (I wasn’t). But whenever I’ve been recruiting I’ve tried to ensure that there’s been good communication with applicants. Otherwise it’s just unfair.

My sense is that things are geared up towards making life easier for organisations rather than applicants. But these first impressions matter a great deal as a potential employee.

The experience has soured me on working for a couple of places.

I went through a lengthy process for one role that I really wanted. I made it through a series of four interviews, but I messed up a key question in the final interview so didn’t get it. Disappointing, but there we go.

There were a lot of other great jobs around this year. But, as exciting as some of these were, they were mostly in London and Leeds. I’m done with commuting to London and with organisations that aren’t willing to build or support remote teams.

My new role

I’ve ended up taking a permanent part-time role as CTO at Energy Sparks. I was already a trustee of the charity and had helped build the early prototype. It was clear that the product needed some ongoing technical leadership, so I threw my hat into the ring when the recruitment process opened up.

Most of my career decisions have been made around identifying places where I can see help is needed and where I think I have something to offer. I’ve never really had a long term plan. Just an idea of the types of things I enjoy doing.

I’ve been really enjoying it. I get to flex some technical and product skills that I’ve not used in a while. And we’ve recently got some more funding so the team is slowly expanding.

The role is ticking all my boxes in terms of wanting to help grow a product or service, and use a broader set of my skills. It’s also in the energy sector which is where I wanted to end up.

Currently the role is four days a week. So I have capacity to do some freelancing work alongside this. If you need help in 2021, then let me know!

One of the most refreshing changes is demonstrated by this screenshot from my Google Calendar

My typical week of meetings

Our team has a couple of regular meetings every week. Otherwise we use email, Trello and the occasional phone call. No Slack or other messaging.

I was in a very different role at the ODI. My job was, largely, to support other teams. Which meant that meetings were most of my work. And that’s what I spent 90% of my time doing.

This is a very different role, so the shift isn’t unexpected. But it’s a tangible demonstration of what I wanted to see change this year.

Running

I’m slightly embarrassed reading back my enthusiastic comments about running last year. Because I’ve completely failed to build on my success this year. A “break for the winter” rapidly turned into a permanent hiatus.

I think I’ve managed half a dozen runs this year? I did do a lot of walking, but generally have fallen back into bad habits. I’ve also piled back on all the weight I lost last year.

I turn 50 this year so I need to get this under control before then.

Listening

Here’s a summary of my Spotify listening this year

Fewer meetings means more time to listen to music during the day. I’ve continued to listen to more broadcast and on-demand radio. Listening to BBC Unclassified is now a permanent part of my weekend mornings.

Mixing up my listening is part of resisting being completely channelled by algorithmic recommendations. But I’ve also lent into that too having spent more than a few evenings falling down a YouTube rabbit hole based on its idea of what music I should listen to next.

This always throws up some weird and wonderful tunes and, without fail, a sense of community from lots of other people leaving comments about how they too have ended up unexpectedly listening to a 70s concept album about goblins. Sometimes the comments are worth reading and the algos make useful connections.

I also started to buy music again. So while I subscribe to Spotify I’ve been buying my favourite albums on Bandcamp. The MP3s get ignored, but at least I’m funnelling more money to the artists I love.

The other habit I started in 2020 which I’ve kept up this year is to keep a dedicated playlist of “tracks that I loved on first listen, which were released this year“. It really helps me to be more conscious about what I’m listening to and encourages me to dig deeper.

Here’s a link to my 2021 Tracked playlist which has 301 tracks on it. About 24 hours of music

Cooking

I’ve been tweeting what I’ve been cooking this year to keep a record of what I made. And I bookmark recipes here.

I generally try out a new recipe on a Saturday night alongside a cocktail or two. We’ve been doing this for years now, since the kids were little.

Here’s how those recipes and the accompanying cocktails break down:

I’ve obviously cooked (and drank!) much more than this, but the numbers are reflective of what I enjoy making and drinking.

I do love a martini.

I made pasta for the first time this year. But I was most pleased with having made Korean rice cakes, which I’ve now done a couple of times. They’re really simple, but satisfying to make.

This years top ingredient: Rainbow Chard.

2022 will be about the Food of Sichuan.

Gardening

I’ve already published a blog post with my gardening retro for 2021.

A lot of time I should have been gardening I was instead trying to identify bees.

Reading

I’ve continued to tweet what books I’ve read. And publicly bookmark the articles and papers I’ve read.

I’ve kept up the habit of having one comic book, one novel and one non-fiction book on the go. But this year I’ve read a lot more comics and very little non-fiction compared to previous years.

My head has not really been in the space for reading heavy stuff.

Having felt the need for a lot of escapism this year, if asked, I’d have told you that I’ve read fewer articles, papers and blog posts this year. But that turns out not to be the case.

In the above chart the orange bar indicates articles I’ve read via the Pocket app. This is an in-grained part of my reading workflow and is a rough indication of time spent on focused reading. Its increased again this year.

What was surprising is that I was sure that I had been read more during my commuting time. But 2019 was a lot lower. What I have less of is reflection time after reading. As I often jump straight into work or another task, rather than the final walk to the office or bus ride home.

Not taking time to digest stuff is, I think, contributing to why I feel like I’ve read less.

On to some recommendations.

Comics

I’ve read a lot of complete runs this year: Y: The Last Man, Phonogram, Criminal, Stray Bullets, Curse Words, Ballad of Halo Jones, Skyward and Sandman. I’ve also got a couple of other series on the go.

I’ve been meaning to read Sandman for a while. To be honest, in the end I thought it was overrated. Interesting in places, but not something I’d go back and ever read again. I enjoyed the others much more, in particular Criminal and the first volumes in Stray Bullets.

My favourites from this year, in no particular order:

Non-fiction

Barely read any non-fiction this year.

My only recommendation is the Beastie Boys Book which was an absolute joy to read.

I now have some new locations in mind next time someone asks me “Where would you go if you had a time machine?

Fiction

My picks for this year were:

Also special mention for Accelerate by Brendan C. Byrne. Devoured this novella in one sitting. High octane 80’s era cyberpunk. Fantastic.

Writing

I didn’t write very much this year. Published 20 posts compared to 34 last year, when I was pushing myself to write at least a couple of posts each month.

Looking at my blog stats, I actually ended up with slightly more views (39,890 views vs 37,579 last year).

But then most of my traffic comes from a few perennial posts that seem to have good google juice. Including that one about data scientists.

The three most popular posts were:

The posts I’m most pleased with are:

  • This post on decentralisation, focusing on the processes and feedback loops rather than the architecture
  • This short series of posts sharing some insights from a few recent projects, including building data validators, schema explorers and extending schema.org
  • A collection of posts that I’ve been thinking of “data infrastructure tear downs” that look at how some service or data infrastructure actually works: Common Voice, Energy Sparks, Swash, and the above post on Smart Meters. I might do more of these next year

Coding

As my github contribution graphs for 2020 vs 2021 show, I’m back writing code on a regular basis.

My 2020 Github contribution graph
My 2021 Github contribution graph

I built and wrote all the content for OSM queries which I launched for Open Data Day this year. This was a fairly significant piece of work and I’ve had some nice feedback on it.

I’ve got a variety of unfinished projects on the go which will hopefully see the light of data next year, but I’m not sweating that too much. They’re intended to be fun diversions.

Gaming

I didn’t play a lot of video games this year.

I picked up Return of the Obra Dinn on the Switch and played through it with my wife on the big screen in the living room. Amazing game.

I played most of Hitman 3 on the PS4. I’ve been enjoying learning each sandbox level and wearing the sharpest suits possible.

Grabbed a copy of Darkest Dungeon 2 as soon as it went into Early Access. Really enjoyed what I’ve seen of it so far. But I’m restricting how much I play so I don’t get bored of it before the final release.

I’ve been dipping into Toem on the Switch. Which is a cute game about taking photographs. Low stakes and relaxing.

I also finally managed to snag a PS5. I’ve been playing the Demon’s Souls remake and am thoroughly enjoying the Miles Morales Spiderman game.

I saw someone complain in a review that it only had six hours of “content” (I hate that word). I’ve not finished the game yet, but I’m going to end up spending more than six hours just web-slinging through the city. Some people have no joy.

I am very excited to play Elden Ring in February. As I’ve done with the last few FromSoftware releases, I might take the day off to play it when it releases.

Most of my game time this year has been spent on the two weekly TTRPG sessions that I’m involved in. I’ve already written about how great its been to get back into the hobby this year.

I’d like to try some other games and settings. Including Brindlewood Bay, Teeth and Cthulhu Hack.

Watching

There’s been some great stuff to watch this year.

My favourite films are:

Special mention for a few low budget genre films that I enjoyed including:

  • Blood Red Sky – an interesting take on the vampire film
  • Prospect – Pedro Pascal channeling Nathan Fillion
  • Oxygen – a fun puzzle box film

In terms of TV, my favourites were:

I enjoyed Loki, but thought the ending was disappointing. Episode 3 was the highlight and I’d be happy to watch Loki and Sylvie Have Adventures.

Watching the fan created ending to the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon was also fun. I loved that show and made the kids watch them all when they were younger!

I think TV and films are in a weird place at the moment. New series don’t seem to have chance to find their audiences before they’re canned, which is frustrating and annoying.

It feels like a small but vocal audience who have the time to over-analyse everything prior to release, and then immediately binge and complain afterwards get to dictate what is made or renewed. I’ve sat down to watch series only to discover they’re already canned.

Everything else

I’m not really going to dip into anything else as I don’t want to share too much deeply personal stuff here.

It’s been a challenging year for reasons other than COVID. But we’re ending it in a good place, so I’m hopeful that 2022 will be better in many ways. Even though we’ll all still be dealing with COVID.

I’m placing no expectations on myself for the year ahead other than to get fitter and healthier before I turn 50. There’s several level of self-care going on there as I’m really not looking forward to it!

Cheers, all.

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